The problem with desert jobs was that no matter one's level of preparation and experience, it was laughably easy for them to go to shit within minutes. Clint had been in his perch for twenty-seven hours when that happened in the depths of the Saudi Arabian desert.
He'd been fine until then. He'd had enough sunscreen, water, and protein bars to get him through the better part of seven days, and between Coulson and himself, they were fairly certain the job was only going to take three. Miscalculations in situations such as this weren't impossible, so Clint would not have been surprised by a four day stretch, but he was more than adequately prepared for such an eventuality.
He'd planned the perch. It should have been capable of shielding him, even in a dust storm of the type typically experienced as far out in the desert as he was. So, of course, the dust storm that came was out of all proportion to the ones Clint could have reasonably expected.
He could smell the storm coming, hear it, practically feel it underneath his skin, and he tucked himself further inside the cover of the perch, content to wait it out.
Despite his awareness of its approach, it came with a ferocity he could not have predicted, and the perch was only enough protection to keep him from drowning in the sand. Even despite the coverings he had wrapped himself in, everything he had on him for the sharp temperature drop of the desert nights, the sand found its way to his skin, scouring and scraping and taking as it would.
Clint suspected the storm lasted the better part of four hours, maybe even a bit longer. By the time the worst of it passed, the shape of the desert had changed, and Clint knew he needed to find a different perch, or all of this would have been for nothing.
Standing was torture, the sand settling into torn and abraded skin, his muscles screaming against the change in position, due to how tightly he'd been holding himself. Clint could sit, waiting for a shot for days, and not even feel it upon packing up and moving out, but keeping himself in a ball for four hours in the hope of not choking to death on sand was a slightly different situation.
Still, he had to move and move quickly, not just for the sake of the mission, but because night would come quickly, with its intense chill, and Clint was going to need the scant shelter a proper perch offered him.
He tried getting hold of Coulson, or anyone who should have been on the other end of the comms, but clearly the storm had eradicated their lines, so Clint was on his own. That was fine, it was hardly as if he didn't know what he had to do.
He made himself reapply sunscreen, biting his tongue against the whimpers that wanted to come out at the contact of the chemical against open wounds. He used some of his water to wash his mouth out several times, and then swallowed carefully, gently, enough sand having gotten in his mouth and throat to make him actively have to convince himself to swallow.
When he'd done as much damage control as he could, he slipped out of the now-destroyed perch, intent on having the situation back in hand by the time the sun slipped behind the far crest of sand.
Clint found a workable spot. The air was already cooling by the time he managed it, and all he could hope was that the storm had kept the target stationary, and all this wouldn't now be moot.
When he'd properly set up, he tried contacting Coulson again--no go--and then forced himself to wash as much of the damaged skin as he could with the bottle of rubbing alcohol in his pack. There was nowhere near enough to get to all the areas that needed covering. The alcohol burned something fierce, and he didn't have near to enough bandaging to cover the areas he had managed to clean. He considered using some of the water to try and flush out the other areas for all of two seconds before he decided he needed it for hydration more.
He ate a protein bar slowly, keeping watch as he did so. It was going to get hard to stay awake in another ten hours, if not before, he could tell. By twenty-four, it might be impossible; he'd already been up a good twenty. He hoped Coulson had managed to get communications back up by then, or they might have a problem.
The temperature dropped rapidly after sunset. Clint tried wrapping himself once more in the materials he had for just that purpose, but the fabric tore along open skin, and caught at places that had burned in the aftermath of the storm. Clint decided the cold was the lesser of the evils.
According to their intel--and Tasha had done it, the intel was good--their target had to emerge within the next thirty-six hours. The only question was when. That was always the only question. Clint really did love his job most days, but there were times he questioned whether he got paid enough to do it.
He started to warm up about three hours into the night, which he knew was a bad sign. He dug the Tylenol in his kit out and swallowed a few down with a couple of sips of water. Thirty-six hours at most; he could keep infection from becoming too much of a problem in that time, he'd done it before.
The chills came back in the next hour and Clint let them shake him until it hurt, on the theory--proven more than once--that the more he rode them out the easier it would be to make himself still if he needed to make the shot in the middle of them.
By six hours into the night, Clint was engaging in an internal monologue with whatever dumbass tech hadn't gotten their communications back up just to keep himself awake and on task. The night slipped by with nary a movement from anything, not even the fucking scorpions. When the sun began to peak over the sanded ridges, Clint made himself eat another protein bar, despite the nausea that infection was bringing with it.
He sipped at his water slowly and made himself put sunscreen on the few parts of his skin that were still intact, despite the inevitable contact with all the parts that were now puffy, red, and throbbing like some kind of medieval torture device someone had just gotten around to thinking up.
Clint took deep, slow breaths, and kept watching for the target.
The target crawled out of his cave--hole--thirteen hours past the outermost calculations. Clint was shivering from fever, had engaged in a conversation with Barney and another with Buck, both of whom were, to the best of his knowledge, dead, was a good forty hours past when sleep deprivation legally drove a person crazy, and had thrown up most of his last protein bar and whatever water he'd drank in the previous six hours.
He still hit the target.
He moved, then. It was nearly impossible, the infection running rampant over the entirety of his exposed skin, his brain conjuring images that didn't correspond to reality, the heat of the mid-day desert. He kept moving. There was a safe house. Realistically, Clint knew he couldn't reach it. It was too far, even in pristine condition.
But Phil's voice still hadn't come into his ear--and if he'd had to hallucinate shit, why couldn't it have been that--so he was on his own, and the direction of the safe house (cave, really) was the only one that made sense.
He tripped three times before a fourth, when he couldn't get up. He tried, but the sand seemed to rise up and peck away at him, like tiny, annoying, painful birds. He couldn't remember where he was, or what he was supposed to be doing.
He was too hot and then too cold and then too hot again, and he wondered if he was back in the orphanage, the Iowa summers oppressive in a building with no central air, the only refuge the public library, which kept the air at sub-zero. He shook his head and thought, desert, thought, move, but as much as he wanted to, his muscles just wouldn't cooperate.
Barney said, "You always were to fucking dumb to come in out of the rain."
It wasn't raining, but Clint didn't have the energy to argue. He closed his eyes. Barney was still there.
Clint came partially awake to pain and lashed out in the direction he perceived it to be coming from. "Fuck off, Barney," he growled, or at least tried, there was no moisture in his mouth to help form the words.
Barney, predictably, did not fuck off. He'd only ever done that when Clint needed him not to. Clint tried kicking him away, but his leg had gotten really heavy at some point.
"Stand down, Barton."
Barton? Barney didn't call him that. Buck? It didn't matter, whoever it was, they were hurting him. Clint wished he had his bow. Wait, where was his bow? Did he leave his bow somewhere? That thought, even more than the pain, sent him into a panic, trying to feel for the weapon. Every movement was a fight, especially since someone who did not look at all like Buck was trying to stop him.
The someone barked, "Clint! Don't make me sedate you!"
Clint blinked, trying to think through the haze that seemed to cover his brain. He was in trouble. He couldn't remember what he'd done wrong. Had he broken something? He hurt, so maybe it had been glass. "I'll clean it up," he mumbled. "Please."
He didn't want to go into the cellar. It was cold, and dark, and there was no way out. "I don't wanna go in the cellar," he told the not-Buck and not-Dad person. "I'll clean it up."
"Clint," his name was said more softly this time, more carefully. Clint looked around him, trying to orient himself, trying to figure out what he'd broken. Everything was so, so bright, burning hot. Maybe the cellar wouldn't be so bad this time, if he had to go.
"I promise you, we're not going to the cellar," not-Dad told him. And then agony flared as he was righted and subsequently upended, the man's shoulder digging into his stomach.
"Gonna be sick," Clint moaned, terrified. "Please." The cellar was bad enough, he felt like he'd die if someone took a belt to him right now. His skin had peeled off, he could tell, there was nothing but muscle and blood to meet leather.
"It's okay. It's fine, Clint. But I have to get you out of the sun."
Clint closed his eyes against the dizziness and nausea, holding on as long as he could manage, but eventually his gag reflex took over. He didn't bring up anything, though, simply heaved.
He thought the not-Dad man might have said something, low and angry, and Clint tried to apologize again, but the pain of travel and sickness overwhelmed him and he lost the fight with consciousness.
Clint woke himself up by way of shivering so hard he couldn't stay asleep through it. Wherever he was, it was cold and dark and smelled wrong, stale, sort of. He tried to remember what had happened, but all he remembered was pain and maybe-- Oh, someone had been mad at him. He was in the cellar.
Usually, he would have made himself get up, try the impossible task of finding a way out, but the thought of even trying to crawl made his stomach pitch, so he stayed where he was. There was something under him, a mat of some type. It was soft compared to the cellar floor. He wondered who'd put it there. Maybe Barney had decided to be nice, seeing how often Clint got in trouble.
Clint startled at the voice. Nobody was ever in the cellar with him. He blinked in the direction of the voice, and then a light flared and a lantern was lit.
He wasn't in the cellar. The cellar didn't have high ceilings and wasn't made out of rock. The man who'd lit the lantern was talking, asking him how he felt. Clint closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind. Now that he could see his surroundings, he felt some of the fog of the delirium dissipate, but it was still hard to figure out exactly what was going on.
The first clear thought that came to him was that he knew who would come for him if he was in danger. He opened his eyes. "Coulson."
"Back with me, Barton?" Coulson asked.
"Not really," Clint told him, and shivered.
Coulson approached and draped a blanket around Clint's shoulders. Clint looked at his arms. They were wrapped with bandages. He breathed deeply. He didn't mean to say, "I'm not in the cellar," aloud, but everything was very confusing at the moment.
"No, you didn't do anything wrong. In fact, you should be commended, Specialist."
The words didn't really make sense, but the voice was familiar in a way that made Clint's heart slow, and the tone was calming. Plaintively, because nobody had ever rescued him from the cellar before, and here was this man, with his blanket, and his calming words, Clint said, "I don't feel well."
"You're pretty banged up," the man--Coulson, Clint forced himself to remember--said. "We've got a pick up coming, but it's going to be a few hours. Let me get some water in you, then you can rest."
Water sounded really good. Clint hadn't noticed before, being so cold, but he was really thirsty. When the canteen was handed to him, he gulped, but Coulson took it away, saying, "Slow, Barton. Your stomach isn't in top form."
Clint slowed down; he wanted to keep the man happy with him. When his eyes started to drift shut, the man took the canteen and helped lower Clint back onto his pad. Clint leaned into him a little; the man was warm, and he was being so careful not to hurt Clint.
The man made a noise and Clint started to pull away, but the man's grip stayed steady as he pulled Clint's head down onto his thigh and said, "I'm here. You can rest."
Clint fell asleep with those words echoing in his mind, the feeling of fingers carding ever-so-gently through his hair. It was the first time he could remember anyone staying with him until he slept.
Clint came to in a SHIELD medical bed, Coulson sitting in a chair nearby, watching something--it sounded like Hoarders--on his tablet. Clint coughed, and Coulson looked up, setting the tablet aside and rising to hold a glass with a straw to Clint's lips. Coulson said, "Welcome back."
Clint had vague memories of the jet coming for them; mostly of it being too loud, making everything hurt more. Clint finished drinking and said, "Thanks. Uh. I think that might be mostly due to you."
"I've already requisitioned better comms gear for sandstorms. I'm not sure why nobody has realized the need before, but it will be taken care of."
Clint couldn't decide whether he wanted to close his eyes, soak up the sound of Coulson's calm reassurance, or keep them open, watch the nuances in his expression. He wasn't given much of a choice when Coulson met his gaze and said, "You were pretty out of it back there."
It took a second for the memories to come to Clint. Then he blushed. "Fuck, I'm sor--"
"Don't," Coulson said softly, but he wasn't Coulson anymore, he was Phil.
Clint swallowed. "Thought we weren't going to do this at work."
"Yes, well, it's possible I somehow miscalculated the effect you reliving your deplorable childhood while scraped raw and fevered in a sandy hellhole would have on my resolve."
"Unlike you," Clint observed.
Phil managed not to smile for all of a second, and then he gave in, his eyes crinkling, the underlying sweetness in them rising to the surface. And although Clint knew all the reasons they'd agreed not to let this part of themselves seep into the work place, he couldn't help drinking all of it in.
Phil said, "You got the target."
Clint raised an eyebrow. "Now we're really mixing business with pleasure."
"No," Phil shook his head. "No, I'm letting the man I love know how incredible he is."
Phil said it without much emotion or sentiment, and yet it made Clint squirm, made him feel as though he had too much to lose. "You did find me in the fucking desert without any working tech, I'll point out."
"And I always will." Phil's tone was casual, but Clint had learned to know a promise from Phil when he heard one.
"Phil," Clint said, because he wasn't sure how to respond, wasn't sure what he had to give in response.
Phil stood up, leaning over to brush their lips together. "Sleep. Heal. One fireman's hold is enough for a week, and I damn well want to take you home." He smiled against Clint's lips. "Nobody puts baby in a cellar."
"Did you just reduce my childhood trauma to a line from an eighties romance?"
"Kind of helped, didn't it?"
Clint retaliated by biting Phil's lower lip for all of a second before breaking into laughter. "Yeah. It kind of did."